Popular culture is political.
And as I have suggested many times before, politics is professional wrestling and professional wrestling is politics.
Roland Barthes insightfully described why the devotees of professional wrestling find it so compelling:
The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters. And in fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle, for what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky (a romantic value suited rather to fashionable occasions), it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.
There is no greater spectacle—an exaggerated, out-sized, over the top, presentation of physical storytelling inside a twenty by twenty foot ring—than World Wrestling Entertainment’s annual WrestleMania event.
This year’s WrestleMania 31 was exciting and thrilling.
Old heroes returned to reclaim their mantle, the “dead” rose from the grave, a working class hero who looks more like an everyman than the prototypical mythic heroes made real as professional wrestlers won a championship, and an unstoppable force, a beast incarnate, unleashed his wrath on a near helpless foe only to see his victory denied by a scurrilous rival who, in an almost “Deus ex machina” moment, stole the sport's greatest prize.
Professional wrestling is a global juggernaught.
WrestleMania 31 was watched in 40 different countries. The event, held at Levi Stadium, was attended by 76,967 people—a record for that facility.
One of WrestleMania 31’s featured matches was a battle for the United States Championship between Rusev, an “evil” Russian (who is actually from Bulgaria, ostensibly a recipient of medals of honor from President Putin, and is attended to by his valet and manager, a strikingly beautiful “Russian” blond named Lana) and the habitually selfless, hard scrapping “good” American “patriot” and former Marine, John Cena.
Their rivalry is classic professional wrestling storytelling.
It draws on current events (a resurgent Russia), is rooted in the near past (the Cold War), features characters who are exaggerated even by the caricaturized standards of professional wrestling (Rusev, a monstrous brute whose apparent reason d’etre is to humiliate Americans, and John Cena, a character that is so sickeningly likeable and preternaturally good that his detractors have given him the moniker “Super Cena”).
Cena and Rusev’s rivalry resonates because it is fundamentally simple: nationalism and channeled through characters who embody simplistic notions of “good” and “evil”.
Befitting the spectacle that is WrestleMania, Rusev and Cena were gifted with magisterial entrances. Rusev, waving a Russian flag, road a Soviet-era main battle tank to the ring and was accompanied by an honor guard while the Russian national anthem blared in the background.
Not to be undone, John Cena was introduced by a brilliantly produced video montage.
It channeled with aplomb the empty patriotism of Tea Party rallies, Fox News, and a tautological logic that deems
America the greatest country on
Earth because Americans say that it is.
In all, John Cena’s entrance was perfect for the theater that is WrestleMania.
However, John Cena’s video montage was also a moment when the spectacular and exaggerated transitioned into the surreal.
Cena’s video opens with a segment from Eisenhower’s farewell address in which he offered a prescient warning about the rise of the military industrial complex—except such words are not included, his wisdom truncated into "America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world".
Ronald Reagan is omnipresent in the WrestleMania montage.
As Rick Perlstein sharply observes in his book The Invisible Bridge, Reagan was the ideal president for a country that wanted to be lied to in order to feel good about itself. Thus, Reagan, former Hollywood actor, corporate pitchman, and human emblem for an “empire of illusion”, is perhaps the President of the
best suited as a mascot for professional wrestling.
He is the perfect narrator for a fictitious
George W. Bush had his moment as well--he who led the
United States into disastrous wars in the Middle East that have killed more than one million people
and broke the American economy.
has reimagined itself as a type of perpetual victim whose good intentions are
punished by terrorism and hatred from abroad, images of “first responders”, America’s soldiers, and September 11th
were also included as obligatory elements in Cena’s video ode to America.
Those images are empty symbols, divorced of context. They are propaganda akin to the ahistorical lens into current events offered by movies such as the recent fascist fantasy American Sniper.
In this imaginary, George W. Bush is separated from the very horrors and chaos that his poor decision-making unleashed on the “heroes” depicted in Cena’s video montage.
Cena’s video also distorted the Black Freedom Struggle. Because Black Americans and their struggle for civil rights exemplify
conscience, a flattening of that history is central to the myth of American
Exceptionalism. As is necessitated by their induction into the mainstream
pantheon of American heroes, Brother Dr. King and Sister Rosa Parks have been
robbed of their radicalism, reduced to iconic photos of a black man giving a
speech to thousands and a black woman sitting on a bus because "her feet were tired".
Cena’s video package is just one more reminder of how the American collective conscience has repackaged the Civil Rights Movement into something digestible for the white (and too many of the black and brown) American public.
States, capitalism is confused with
democracy. As such, images of Steve Jobs, Apple products, and Facebook were
included with Dr. King. The latter was a radical critic of inequality, the
distortions of capitalism, and free market fundamentalism. Somehow, a man who
was killed because he fought for human rights is a hero in the same sense as people
who feed the infinite maw of consumerism.
John Cena’s “
video is an example of history by committee, a product of marketing researchers,
and WWE’s keen understanding of its viewer demographics. Cena’s video montage
cannot offend by truth-telling; nor, should it be expected to. This is the
ethic of the neoliberal corporate multicultural state: false notions of
inclusivity to the end of profit maximization.
Professional wrestling is spectacular theater. WrestleMania is the spectacular elevated to the ridiculous. As a lifelong fan of professional wrestling, I/we have made a bargain. We know that the events are scripted. The drama is no less real.
The danger lies in how the fantastically distorted history and present embodied by John Cena’s video is actually taken as true by too many of the country’s citizens. This is especially the case for conservatives with their American flag lapel pin obsessions, insular and alternative reality news media entertainment machine, as well as penchant for confusing militarism and ugly nationalism with authentic and true patriotism.
Even more disturbing, is how John Cena’s American Exceptionalism themed video montage could easily be substituted as a type of exam or test of faith for the Right-wing faithful and their presidential candidates in the 2016 election.
If politics is professional wrestling, then WrestleMania 31 provided a moment of gifted insight into a twisted and delusional belief system that imperils the Common Good.